I was honored to give the final keynote at last week’s Open Source Bridge 2014. My talk was titled “‘Why are these people following me?': Leadership for the introverted, uncertain, and astonished”. It is the story of how I learned and claimed my leadership skills–because leading and conveying authenticity are both learnable skills.
This talk contains brief and nonspecific mentions of emotional abuse and thoughts of suicide. The video skips in several places; I’ve filled in the transcript to the best of my memory, but if you happen to have more complete notes or corrections send them my way!
Video and transcript are below the fold. This talk is licensed CC-BY-SA.
(organist plays Nyan Cat music)
Thank you for the kind introduction and for the wonderful music! Good morning.
So this talk is for anyone who’s been mildly confused about why their colleagues keep listening to them, or that people keep wanting to run ideas by them before they make decisions, or why their friends keep on suggesting that they go for leadership positions when they’re absolutely sure that they’ve given no sign that that might be something that they’re interested in. It’s also for anyone who has someone in their life, maybe a boyfriend, a spouse, a mentee, an employee, who doesn’t think that they’re as capable as you’ve seen them be. Go ahead. Think about that person you know.
That person has been me. Sometimes, that person is still me.
This talk comes out of my own utter confusion that people started following me. Started linking to me. And generally, started listening to me. Suddenly, people seemed to be subscribing to my proverbial newsletter. I didn’t even know I had a newsletter!
So where did these people come from, and why were they following me?
All I did was tell my story. All I did was give advice. All I did was make hard decisions for myself. All I did was listen. All I did was apply my experience from one setting in a different one. All I did was write an article. All I did was start a hackerspace.
This talk is for everyone who has walked a path like mine.
And all I want to do this morning is: tell my story. Give advice. And tell you about some hard decisions I’ve made.
I am doing this so that you can take what’s useful to make your own path–and so you can notice and nurture others.
So let’s go back. Five years ago, I was working as an organic chemist for Big Pharma. I worked in research and development. I synthesized entirely new molecules in the hope that one of them could maybe be used to cure or treat a disease.
Organic chemistry, as it turns out, is one of the remaining boys’ clubs of the larger field of chemistry. And I didn’t look like a chemist. I looked around me at my job. I saw some women, most of them on my level with a bachelors or a masters. I saw fewer with PhDs in management positions. And there was one female director. She was reputed to be “difficult to work with,” or worse.
I knew there had to be other queer people in the building, but I had no idea who they might be. I didn’t see any other ambitious female chemists who rocked a buzzcut, hated chitchat, and regularly went off to visit their girlfriend on the other side of the country. I didn’t fit. I didn’t see leaders who were like me. But I decided I was not going to end up small.
And I watched. I mirrored people around me. I tried to blend in, and it worked in some ways. It didn’t in others. I was a good chemist, and that helped. And I looked around me, and some things I tried and things I learned are: in ways sometimes even I didn’t notice, I suppressed interest in performing femininity. I stopped apologizing unless I’d actually done something wrong. I learned to omit details that showed weakness. I learned what I needed to say, and what I really didn’t. I learned to volunteer quickly for things I wanted to do, so I wouldn’t be voluntold to do women’s work. I learned to let that awkward silence of “Can anyone take notes?” stretch on without saying anything.
I learned to work independently. I got to where I could be given a target molecule, and I would figure out how to synthesise it. I didn’t have to be told what to do step by step. And I stayed curious. I learned to ask questions, and to not depend on others volunteering information that I would need to know.
I had social hiccups. I was an awkward and pedantic child, like I’m sure no one else in this room has been, and I took people’s word for the social rules, and I ignored the invisible ones and the ones that I didn’t understand. This made things really hard sometimes, and I was very confused. It felt like I was running into invisible walls.
I was told in my first performance evaluation that I was sometimes coming off as “intimidating and offputting.” But I learned, and I looked around me, and what I saw was that I could only get so far without a PhD. I didn’t like that. I worked with some amazing chemists who only had bachelors or masters degrees. I knew though, that if I wanted to change that, that I would have to play the game and work my way up there so that maybe some day, that wouldn’t be the case. So I went to grad school.
I gained academic skills and knowledge. Like you do. But those really weren’t the most important things that I got out of those years. I kept on noticing and I kept on learning. Seminar speakers were mostly male, and when it came time for Q&A, usually only the men in the department would ask questions. I was tired of not hearing female voices. But I also didn’t want to slip up and expose ignorance, so I learned to ask good questions. I learned to apply knowledge that I had from one field to another. So when the speaker talked about synthesizing new nanoparticles that might someday be used to diagnose and treat cancer, I noticed the potentially toxic reaction byproducts in the synthesis, and I asked whether they’d considered the question of biocompatibility.
Like I said, I didn’t want to ask bad questions. Weakness and perceived stupidity were unacceptable, but scientific humility was a value. I learned where the line between those was, and it was a fuzzy line sometimes. I learned how to acceptably show gaps in my knowledge and curiousity. I got really good at projecting a shell of “acceptable academic”, but there wasn’t enough underneath it—there wasn’t enough of me in it—to make it truly strong and tough. It was strong, sure, but it was brittle. When you hit it hard enough, it was going to shatter and not dent.
So, other things that I learned. I started studying martial arts, and I learned to take up space, to fall with grace, and to stand up again unhurt. I began to carry myself differently. I learned these things I wanted to share them. I found opportunities to share these skills with those around me: undergraduates, labmates.
Through all of this, I knew I was a good chemist. And competence builds confidence. I rarely doubted myself as a scientist. I had this felt truth to cling to: I could do, because I did do.
Grad school didn’t end well. I left my first adviser—a brilliant and emotionally abusive rising star of the department. Next I joined a group that was doing research in a field closer to the one that I had worked in. In that group, if I’d stayed, and if I had earned my PhD, I would have been the first female PhD student to graduate, to come out of that group, in over a decade, and possibly over the course of my advisor’s career. I learned this about 9 months after I joined the group, and I decided I was doing all right, I would try to stay, I would try to be that one.
But that group also had really toxic and harmful ways that that advisor would interact with the rest of us. I was the golden child, if you will, and I tried to use that status to shield my labmate from “How could you make a mistake like that? That’s stupid.” Just because that abuse wasn’t directed at me doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt me too.
If I hadn’t suffered two serious personal losses in one month, I might have tried to hang on for much longer. As it was, I went on medical leave shortly after. The months were the lowest I have ever been. I was incredibly glad that I had left behind the keys to the stockroom where we stored the chemicals.
So I grieved. As I came to terms with the atmosphere of sexism, the chilly climate, and the abusive dynamics I’d experienced in graduate school and over the course of my career, I experienced a third searing loss: my career in chemistry and my identity as a successful scientist.
I had taught myself how to think, how to analyze. I knew how to do that really well. I didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t know how to recognize feelings. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do next, or what I could do next. All I knew was that I hurt more than I ever had.
I kept on mourning.
About two months after I went on leave, after I had just started to get bored of looking at the cutest pictures I could find on the internet, I got an email. Leigh Honeywell, a woman who I had looked up to for years and met all of twice, asked me if I wanted to start a feminist hackerspace. I did! I had time. I had ideas. I could write. I did work, and I volunteered to be president, because I had that time, and I had those ideas. But I wasn’t a leader, surely! If anyone was the leader, it was Leigh. She wrote these awesome blog posts, she was an Ada Initiative advisor, she’d already started a hackerspace, and she was the charismatic one, not me. But as we worked together, it became clear that in some things, she was following my lead.
I was very confused.
So as this project went on, as we started up, as we started talking about it and provided materials and expertise for other similar spaces to start up, by anyone’s account, I was a leader. And I still wasn’t sure I agreed, but I sat, and I listened, and I got the work done, and we needed someone to run our fundraising campaign, so I did, and we raised eleven thousand dollars in about 10 days.
But that’s because someone had to do that work, and at the Attic, we recognized that planning things, and managing social interactions, and soothing emotions, and making sure that the space ran well, all of those were work. But work’s not leading, right?
I was still confused, and I’m still a scientist here, and what do I do with things that confuse me? I take them, and I work the ideas over and over until I can build up a new idea from the components and things that I already know. So the way that I got from that confusion and uncertainty to the way I understand leadership skills today, I had two turning points for my thinking, both in the last year. The first came when I took “Your Functional and Transferable Skills Inventory”, from the late 70s, by Richard Nelson. The way that that worked was I wrote down roles that I had, and I checked them off against a big list of skills, categorized variously. So in my role as a chemist, I learned how to handle small quantities of material precisely, in the handwork I did I also trained small motor skills, and so forth. And all of the sections started with this: “I can do, because I did do.”
I’m going to read you some of the items I found in the “leadership” section. They may sound familiar after the experiences I’ve described.
“I can do, because I did do:
“Able to move into totally new situations on one’s own. Continually searches for more responsibility. Unusual ability to work self-directedly, without supervision. Unwillingness to automatically accept the status quo. Sees a problem and acts immediately to solve it. No fear of taking manageable risks. Able to terminate projects when necessary.”
So I hadn’t just failed at my plans for grad school, I’d practiced leadership skills while I was at it!
I had practiced self-directed work, seeing possibilities, self-motivated learning. I’d practiced ability to distill the important things, the important concepts and communicate them. I’d trained a perspective that helps change direction when needed, and I had, slowly and with difficulty, learned a range of social and emotional skills.
Moving to theory a little bit, there’s the concept of self-efficacy, which is how capable you think you are. Things that contribute to this are “I’ve done it.” “People like me have done it.” “I feel good about doing it.” And “Other people encourage me to do it.”
Finally, once I left grad school, once I left that toxic and abusive environment, I had these things. I had opportunity to practice leading. I had a hackerspace full of bold women who I could look at and see myself reflected in. I had left the environment that was taking up so much of my mental and emotional energy. And I finally didn’t have to fight that to practice things that I wanted to do. I felt good about it.
So there are all of these skills, and I had practiced these. Did that make me a leader? A good leader? I was leading, but I was still uncomfortable with this title of “leader”, although it seemed that I had been practicing leadership-related skills for longer than I knew. But as I thought about this, I also remembered those invisible social walls, those conflicts that seemed to come out of nowhere and take me by surprise, and I felt that something was missing from this mental model.
I found that missing piece when I heard Dr. Amy Cuddy speak about leadership, stereotypes, and communication. What I learned from here is that human associate leadership with the confluence of the quality of competence and the quality of warmth. So stepping back a little bit here, when I talk about when I talk about leadership and influence I am not talking about coercion or manipulation. I define influence as the ability to connect with others, and discover that their goals are also your goals.
These characteristics of warmth and influence are communicated verbally and nonverbally, textually and subtextually. If I talk to you like this (assumes a withdrawn posture with crossed arms and legs), you are going to hear a different speech than if I talk to you like this (assumes an aggressive, forward-leaning posture), or if I talk to you like this (assumes a erect and relaxed posture). If I ask someone to review a patch, they’re going to respond differently if I ask them “Could you maybe take a look at this? If, when you have some time?” or “I’ve submitted this. Please review it when you get a chance.”
Warmth is a tricky characteristic, culturally. It’s harder to acquire perceived warmth than perceived competence, and it’s easier to lose. And some groups stereotyped as low-warmth groups. For instance, working women tend to be stereotyped as having high confidence–high competence–and low warmth.
Some of us are starting from behind. But warmth and influence, warmth and therefore influence, largely come, it’s been found, from authenticity. From presenting yourself and making it clear that this is yourself and not a shell or a front that you’re putting on. But authenticity, that’s tricky for some of us. Some of us are punished when we try to act authentically. I don’t know whether it would have gone better or worse for me if I had actually said that I was going to visit my girlfriend. So where does that leave us?
I had hope, because I saw that projecting warmth and authenticity, those were also skills, and if they’re skills, we can learn them, we can practice them, and we can get better. So what were the skills behind warmth?
Empathy. Listening, and not just listening to challenge, listening to hear, listening to understand. Lurking well. Analyzing what you know. Learning social skills. Learning what the unwritten rules are, which are the actual rules. If your company doesn’t have a dress code, but somehow everyone dresses alike, your company has a dress code. Learning to notice, respect, and encourage the boundaries of people around us. As you’re walking, learn to read the signs that say “Stay off the new grass.” Don’t trample it until a guard pulls you off.
Some of us have learned what abusive dynamics look like the hard way. Some of us have been lucky enough not to. We can still listen, learn to recognize them, and learn to name them when we see them.
We can break down the purpose of social ritual that we think is pointless. It took me a really long time to learn that the purpose of small talk isn’t actually an exchange of observations and ideas. It’s a ritual that runs, roughly: “Hello! I observe that you are a person. I am also a person who probably experiences many similar things to you, another person! Perhaps there might be common ground that we could explore further.” It’s that dance. It’s not about deep discussion of meteorology.
With all of that, I learned the missing pieces for my leadership were learnable and practiceable and transferable skills. And that gives me hope to be better. Learning about the power of warmth and authenticity guided me in what skills I needed to learn and to practice.
So that’s me.
I’m not the only one who’s felt like this. I know that. What about all of you? What about the person you thought about at the beginning?
So I’m not just a scientist, I’m a teacher, and part of the way I think about that is helping people make themselves more whole, and more capable. I want us to be able to offer each other our leadership and to know how to follow with dignity and with grace. Power doesn’t have to be coercive. Leading can be an act of service, an expression of responsibility. When one person carries the big picture, it frees up cognitive resources for the rest of us who just want to work, who just want to practice the bit that we’re learning or we’re building. And so the rest of us can focus on the work that we want to be doing. We don’t have to do that and also worry about whether that work is pointed in the right direction. When we all learn to lead, we make it so we can trade that role back and forth, that we’re not dependent on one person. That one person can burn out, or drop out or step back to take care of themselves, or get hit by a bus, and the community and project can keep on going. The benevolent dictator doesn’t need to be for life.
I’ve seen this in the Attic. About six months after we started the space, Leigh, a charismatic and key founding member, moved to San Francisco, following the siren call of all of the tech jobs down there. And we’re still here. We’re still going. And because more of us have had to step up to fill that gap, I think we’re stronger than ever.
We do each other a service when we promote the wholeness needed to lead, and lead well. But leadership is learned, and learning requires vulnerability, and vulnerability depends on the safety to be vulnerable. And our communities are demonstrably unsafe. We are artificially limiting our pool of leaders.
We create shame around ignorance. We devalue social and emotional skills. We cling to abusive systems and abusive leaders, possibly because they’re all that we know. We equate vulnerability with weakness. We privilege competence and freedom over warmth and hospitality. We leave ourselves open to those who consciously perform warmth to manipulate others, to those who try to “hack the human UI.” We devalue lived experience and natural variation, and in its place, we raise up a false and impossible impartiality, which ends hurting us all. We experience incompetent and unethical leadership, and instead of learning to lead better we devalue the idea of leadership.
So, here are some things that I have done and that I have seen done in my communities. I challenge you all to take them up, so you all can say “I can do, because I did do.”
Teach and practice empathy. Read, and listen from, and learn from, those who are very different from you. And when you get that gut knee-jerk “But that’s just wrong!” wait a little bit, wait a little bit and see whether you can see where they’re coming from.
Give new leaders the support that they need. Help the show run smoothly, and don’t try to be the director. Help run operations. Order food. Organize childcare. Figure out where they need to send the press release. Learn to see and describe unspoken and unwritten power structures. How does someone become a maintainer on your project?
Find someone to mentor; you’ll both grow.
Bring up new leaders. Teach them how to do the work of leading.
Make and consistently follow policies to reduce unconscious favoritism—recent research suggests that favoritism is a larger factor in differing outcomes than discrimination.
Learn to feel, or learn to feel again. Notice that you’re feeling something. Notice what you’re feeling. Meditation and structured introspection are tools you can use.
And make space for other people to have boundaries. Don’t make those guards drag you off the grass. Let the new grass grow.
Next conference you go to, next meetup you go to, next round of lightning talks you run, think about the person that I asked you to think about in the beginning. The boyfriend. The spouse. The mentee. The employee. Give them a specific personal invitation. Once they’re there, introduce them to others as you see them, and not as they see themselves. Do this enough, and they might start to believe you, and to see themselves as you see them.
My challenge to you is to forget manufacturing false trust. To connect with each other. To invite each other in. To say “You are wanted here. We need you. Your input matters. And we’re here to catch you when you need it.”
My challenge to you is: rise up, as you are able. Hold out your arms. See each other. Catch each other. Lift each other up. We can do, and so, we will do.